I spoke to a woman in her late fifties who was humorously telling me about ending her thirty-year marriage. Her husband had an affair and, after she confronted him, he asked her if she was happily married prior to the discovery. She said, “Pretty much,” and he then confessed to having other affairs over the years; but since she was ‘pretty much’ happy, then why divorce?
She was stunned by his revelation and even more shocked when the majority of her friends agreed with him. Her friends told her that she had a great house, luxury cars, and three successful adult children. Why rock the boat? Why change at her age? Why throw away thirty years? Why start over?
She questioned why change in her fifties was labeled as starting over. Why couldn’t it just be change? A divorce didn’t negate her successes prior to it; she was still a loving and supportive parent, caring daughter, and a successful executive. She loved her husband but not at the cost of her self-respect; he wasn’t her life but a part of it.
To her, the divorce was a change in course while moving forward. It was not an ending point where she needed to start over. In other words, she hired movers to move her husband out because she was moving on.
I think about her when I am conversing with people over fifty who claim ageism when they are forced through a workplace change. Whether that change involves termination (downsizing or performance) or an increase or decrease in responsibilities, I listen carefully and ask questions cautiously. In the end, I want the truth to the question, “Are you out of work because of you or the job market?”
In some cases, there is a legitimate claim for ageism. But, when it is your first defense for any involuntary workplace change or a slow response to your job hunt, it may be a consequence of what you need versus what you want.
A project manager in his mid-fifties told me he was downsized after eighteen years. Although he had a successful track record in his career, he wasn’t having success in the job market. Most companies in his industry required a certified project manager. Ironically, for years he ignored his previous company’s advice to become certified. After six months of unsuccessful job-hunting, he decided to study for the certification. Three weeks after being certified, he was hired.
I worked at a company with a sixty-year-old executive assistant who only knew Microsoft Word. She had been with the company for years and supported a C-level executive. When she needed to create a PowerPoint or Excel file, she would send it to another department/assistant to create. She said she didn’t like PowerPoint or Excel and wasn’t going to learn it. When her boss left, his replacement insisted that she learn the two applications. She resigned shortly afterward, complaining loudly about his unfair demands.
Regardless of age, relevance is a key factor. Nowadays, keeping your skill set current and applicable in your field is simply about surviving. Companies are looking for contributors, not complacency or complainers. I reiterated this point to a fifty-four-year old man who claimed he couldn’t change jobs because of his grey hair. When I asked him if he had enhanced his skill set over the last few years, he said he didn’t have time for all that.
At its lowest common denominator, being employed is about problem solving. You are hired to solve a problem whether it is answering the telephone or programming a computer. Your ability to consistently, effectively, and efficiently solve that problem can often determine your long-term career or industry success. So, if the problem you were hired to solve evolves, it will probably behoove you to evolve with it.
I have also met people in their fifties and sixties who claim that they are too old to be miserable. Their perspective is “don’t age before your time; work the work.” And, they work the job market to their advantage by leveraging their experience and value regardless of age. To them, experience comes with lessons and, even if some were hard worn, that means you are prepared for your next challenge. They believe in giving change a chance and shedding light on any shady situation because you can make better decisions at any age.
The difference between a job holder and a career builder is realizing that your skill set shouldn’t be tied to one job/company, but it must be transferable to a broader market. This way, whether you leave voluntarily or involuntarily, you have left a job, not your career. The divorcee said it best: she loved her husband, but he was part of her life, not her life.
It’s a competitive world, and refusing to progress or change can be the root cause of why you aren't succeeding versus the number of your last birthday. Being comfortable in your old routine may be more appealing than being comfortable with change, but an old dog can learn new tricks, especially if he needs them to survive.